Thanks to David Edgar and WGGB (West Midlands) I was very lucky to hear two legends of British television drama Hilary Salmon and Tony Garnett debating the state of television drama. You won’t be surprised to hear that although Tony had recently criticised the BBC and Hilary is one of its Executive Producers, there was a lot they agreed about.
Firstly I should start, as Tony did, by referring to THAT now infamous email in which he criticised UK television drama in general and the BBC in particular. Tony wanted "An honest, open and grown up discussion across the industry about the problems in television drama". What he got instead, he says, was a denial by the BBC that there were any problems and then whispers put about denegrating him as the source (old, disgruntled, etc).
What Tony has and continues to argue for is a balanced drama output covering the whole spectrum of drama types, from soaps to authored single plays. Over the last 20 years the balance has shifted too far towards high-volume drama ("The BBC needs to lose it’s obsession with this fictional place with Holby"!) leaving almost no room in the schedules or budgets for short-run serials or singles.
Tony also argued for greater delegation of responsibility from management and channel controllers down to Producers. There are, he argues, too many examples of writers getting contradictory notes from numerous layers of management. Although Hilary doesn’t recognise that as her own experience she did acknowledge that is an issue for colleagues and "there are projects that have suffered because of that kind of problem".
Tony and Hilary also agreed on the importance of a right to fail, something which both felt had disappeared from our drama commissioning culture. Both argued for a strand of single dramas, regularly scheduled, where producers felt able to take risks on writers’ voices. Both acknowledged that with drama resources scarce, it’s no surprise that the most cost-effective, high-volume dramas continue to dominate the schedules.
So where does that leave writers trying to get their voices heard? Hilary is, unsurprisingly, an advocate of the BBC Writersroom and the BBC Drama Writers Academy. Both are legitimate ways of getting your work read by people within the BBC and that’s no bad thing. While Tony raised concerns about writers’ voices being lost on the soaps he did acknowledge that they can be a great training ground for new writers, turning them into pro’s and getting them used to writing to deadlines. While both recognise that some writers are happy to stay writing on the continuing drama series, for those that want to move on Hilary recommends getting out before you begin to feel you’re being subsumed by the show.
Their final words of advice to new writers in particular? Hilary recommends writing a spec script that is very much your own, unique style and voice, then using that to get noticed by BBC Writersroom. Tony reckons new writers should be experimenting with writing for the internet – no one knows how to do it yet and that makes it accessible and very exciting!
Whatever you decide to do, good luck!